How to Support Your Spouse When They've Lost a Loved One
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
We just celebrated Memorial Day last week; a day where we remember those who died in active military duty. It has also become a day that we remember other loved ones we've lost in our lives. It is often filled with visits to cemeteries to place flowers, flags, and other emblems on the headstones of those that have gone before us. For those that have lost loved ones, Memorial Day can be a difficult day, filled with somber and sometimes painful memories. We will all, at some point in our lives, experience a difficult loss. This is not a post about how we grieve those losses, this is about how we can support our spouse during their grieving period.
Ron and I were married in April of 2001 (neither one of us can remember the exact date), and in August of that year, we moved from our small town in Utah to San Diego so Ron could attend graduate school. In April of 2002, just a year after we had been married, Ron's father Bob passed away kind of unexpectedly. Bob had struggled with heart disease for over two decades by this time and a recent surgery to place a stent in an artery suddenly failed and Bob did not make it. Although Ron had just recently visited home to see his family and his father, he was not with his family when his father passed. We quickly made arrangements to travel back home for the funeral and all the things surrounding. It was very difficult for Ron that he wasn't there when his dad passed away. Of course, I was there with Ron physically at the funeral, but I was not with him supporting him in his grief.
I don't know if you can ever be prepared for the loss of a parent, but I don't think most of us expect to lose our parents when we're in our 20's. We usually expect something like that to come much later in our lives, and much later in our parent's lives. The loss of Ron's father was a pivotal point in our marriage and both of our lives, but I'm not sure we realized it at the time.
Quickly after the passing of Ron's dad, Ron started to become a very different person. Not only was he deeply grieving the death of his father, dealing with the shock of it, but he was also searching for truth and comfort in his faith (refer to my post on my Faith Transformation for more details). The reason I wanted to talk about this event is because of how I handled it, which was horrible. I was absolutely not there for my husband like I should have been. I think it is very hard to understand what your spouse is going through unless you have experienced the same kind of loss. I certainly had not experienced the loss of a parent. I was also so young (20 years old) and immature as well. I really didn't know what to do; I didn't know how to comfort Ron and give him support when he needed it most from me. I did not understand what Ron was experiencing, both in his grief and his search for strength and comfort. Because I didn't understand it, I became resentful of Ron and the process he was going through, because it was affecting me. (Selfish right?!)
My selfishness during this time combined with my inability to understand Ron's grieving process and the transformation he was undertaking, put a HUGE strain on our marriage. A strain that lasted for years. I wonder if this would have had such a negative impact on our marriage had I been more concerned with helping Ron through this difficult time, rather than focusing on how it was affecting me. I am sure it wouldn't have.
Fast forward about sixteen years, and in November of 2017, Ron's mother Lena passed away very unexpectedly. She had been dealing with stomach pains and issues for several months and had been in to see the doctor multiple times and even been admitted to the hospital a couple of times. It was very difficult for us to understand how sick she really was because the doctors kept sending her home and not finding anything seriously wrong. When she wasn't getting any better, Ron's brother took her to a specialist out of town to try and figure out the problem. She had some tests done and as they were leaving the doctor's office, the doctor called them and told them to go straight to the hospital as they had found that Lena had a bowel obstruction.
Unfortunately, the obstruction was so severe that it burst and in turn, she ended up in septic shock. It was very up and down for several days while she was in ICU - she would seem to improve, and then her condition would decline, but then it would improve again, but again declined. After this cycle for a few days, her body gave out and she passed away. It was an incredibly difficult week, and now Ron has lost both of his parents.
I was so thankful that I had grown up and matured by this point in my life and I handled this loss so much different than I had with the loss of Ron's father. Although I still did not understand exactly what Ron was feeling and what he was going through at the time, I did understand how I could better support him. Some of the things that I did during this time that I think are valuable ways to show your support:
I think the most important thing is to be there and be present with your spouse as much as possible. Stand by their side; your physical presence with your spouse shows them that you are concerned about them and about what is going on. Hold their hand, rub their back, give them hugs, and show them some affection. Especially if your spouses love language is physical touch, these small gestures can mean a lot to them.
Help them with the practical things, and take care of tasks they might normally take care of. It's just a fact of life, that regular day to day life goes on during the hard times. Pick up the slack so that your spouse has the time to spend with their family, to work through funeral details, spend time grieving, etc. Make sure your spouse isn't worried about the housework, feeding the pets, paying the bills; take whatever you can off of their plate for a while. Pick up lunch and bring it back to everyone while they're planning the funeral; offer to run errands for your spouse or other family members to help take some weight off their shoulders. It may be too difficult for your spouse to handle things like selecting the clothing that their parent will be buried in; let them know that you can take care of that for them.
Try your best to be a source of strength for your spouse. With the loss of Ron's mom and how heart-wrenching the process was, I tried my best to keep my emotions intact as much as I could while I was around Ron or his family. But on those long car rides home from the hospital each night, I cried my eyes out. I'm not saying that you can't have emotions around what is going on, you should. But depending on your relationship, your spouse may feel the need and obligation to comfort you when you are upset (that is certainly the case with Ron), and I didn't want him to have to worry about comforting me when he needed his own time to fall apart. On the flip side, let your partner cry and be as emotional in front of you as they can. Let them know that its okay to cry, it's okay to be upset and it's okay for them to do all of that in front of you.
Know that you don't always have to know what to say. Most likely, you won't know anything at all to say that seems right at the time. That is okay! You can tell them, that you don't know what to say to make them feel better, but that you love them and that you are there for them. You don't need to cheer them up, so even saying things like "look on the bright side" or "they're in a better place" are not always helpful. There may be a bright side, and maybe their passing took them out of pain and sickness, but your spouse can't, and doesn't want to think about the bright side right now. They need to mourn their loss.
Ron is naturally a very quiet person and during times like this, he gets especially quiet. Everyone will grieve in their own ways - some people will want to talk about what they are feeling and discuss memories of their loved one; some people won't want to talk about it at all. Just let your partner know that you are there for them if they ever want to talk about it don't try to force them to open up.
I think the most critical piece is to remember that this is not about YOU. Yes, this loss will still affect you, but it doesn't affect you in the same way as it does your spouse. Don't do what I did with the loss of Ron's father and become so concerned about how this is affecting you, that you neglect your spouse and their needs at the time. And remember that grief doesn't have a specific timeline. The time needed to go through the grieving process will vary from person to person; it can take months and it can take years and quite honestly it never totally ends. You don't get to decide when your spouse should be done grieving. Your spouse may seem back to normal, but certain holidays, memories, songs, etc. can bring their grief back to the surface for the rest of their lives.
There is no perfect way to handle difficult situations like this, but hopefully, you can take some cues from our experience and remember and apply them when you are faced with similar circumstances.